September 30, 2015

There's an international cricketer in my back garden

When the likes of Sri Lanka toured three decades ago, they depended a fair amount on the goodwill of the diaspora

Athula Samarasekera in the 1992 World Cup © Getty Images

Last month, in a windswept Melbourne suburb, I caught up with Athula Samarasekera. It was a reunion 32 years in the making. The last time we met, I was a 15-year-old schoolboy, and he a 22-year-old cricketer on his first overseas tour, with the 1983 Sri Lankan World Cup squad. There's nothing particularly unusual in a schoolboy meeting a cricketing hero, but the circumstances that led to that meeting tell their own story.

In 1983, just two years after being granted full Test status, Sri Lanka was an impoverished cricket nation. The precarious financial footing of the board had ramifications for every aspect of the tour. The World Cup squad comprised the manager, the assistant manager and the team. The board barely had enough money for three-star hotels. The team had the challenge of conducting a World Cup campaign within straitened means while adapting to cricket in foreign conditions. For Athula, who shared a room with Brendon Kuruppu, also on his first tour, the challenges started early.

"We missed our first team meeting," he recalled. Although aware there was a time difference between Colombo and London, they had forgotten to adjust their watches. Jet-lagged, the two woke late on their first evening in England and, with no prospect of a meal in the hotel, set out to forage. Richmond in the 1980s was not a hotbed of late-night eateries. The only food they could find was a pie at a petrol station. Pies are hardly a staple of Sri Lankan cooking. "We didn't know what it was," smiled Athula. With an apprehensive kapang bang - just eat it - they ventured into new territory.

The following day, they were woken by a knock on their door. They had slept through the team meeting. The management then decided it was in everyone's interest to separate the new boys. Sidath Wettimuny was deputed to look after Athula for the rest of the tour.

It proved to be no easy task. During a tour match in Taunton, weary of bland English food, Athula along with Kuruppu, Vinothen John and Granville de Silva walked for miles until they found a Chinese restaurant, the closest thing to home cooking they could hope for. "We were desperate for rice and curry," Athula explained. On the way back, 100 yards from the hotel, they ran into trouble. A gang of skinheads. Far-right-wing thugs, a feature of 1980s Britain, sought minority groups to attack. Savage beatings were common, killings not unknown. The threat was very real. Fortunately for Athula and his colleagues, passers-by, who recognised them from the tour match, saw off their would-be attackers. On a subsequent tour, Ranjan Madugalle was not so lucky.

Athula did suffer a more prosaic injury, a groin strain, while playing in Bristol. Used to training in 30°C heat, ill-prepared for the 18-degree highs of the English spring, the team were sitting ducks for injuries. Quite apart from the difficulties of losing players from a 14-man squad, injuries placed an inordinate strain on the finances. The management had to obtain treatment for the player - there was no hint of a physiotherapist in the tour party - and put him up when the team moved on. The answer to both problems lay with the diaspora.

During a tour match, weary of bland English food, Athula along with Kuruppu, Vinothen John and Granville de Silva walked for miles until they found a Chinese restaurant, the closest thing to home cooking they could hope for

Injured players were billeted with Sri Lankan families. We were one of many families happy to open our homes for the needs of Sri Lankan cricket. Thus it was that I found myself traipsing up the stairs to our attic, while Athula tried to squeeze his 6ft 3in frame into my bed. All over England, Wijegunawardenas, Fernandos and others rallied to the cause. The greatest service was rendered by Dr Daya Pandita-Gunawardena, a family friend and unflagging supporter of Sri Lankan cricket.

"Ranjan [Madugalle] and I were injured. Uncle Daya took us twice a day to see the physio," recalled Athula, "and paid for it from his own pocket." He remains grateful for the help they received. "It is no small thing to have someone in your house in those countries. We were young boys, used to three cooked meals a day. And someone had to do the laundry. The support those aunties and uncles gave us was amazing. We couldn't have performed without it."

We youngsters in the host families loved it. I have vivid memories of games in the back garden with international cricketers. I was never good enough to benefit from the advice offered - "Watch the ball, malli!" - and the inevitable fall of my wicket led to shouts of "That's improved your tour averages".

Athula's gratitude is not limited to the diaspora. Back home in Sri Lanka, although selected for the World Cup, he did not own a bat, gloves or pads. He had to approach Somasundaram Skandakumar, then his club captain at Tamil Union (now Sri Lanka's ambassador to Australia), and ask if he could borrow equipment from the communal kitbag. When a gracious Mr Skandakumar accommodated him, Athula had another problem: he did not own a kitbag. He scratched around for a hard-top suitcase to borrow. The long-handled bat just about fit diagonally, wrapped up in pads for safety.

In England, John Newbery, the bat-maker, took pity on him and others. Apologising that his firm was too small to sponsor the team formally, he took a few cricketers to his factory and invited them to help themselves.

It is impossible to reconcile this penurious and intensely amateur approach with the vastly more organised, if cosseted, world of the modern cricketer. Acts of kindness, unknown to the world at large but remembered by the cricketers who benefited from them, are an integral part of the story of Sri Lankan cricket. Those of us who were fortunate enough to help on the peripheries cherish our memories. As, it seems, does Athula; still playing cricket; still grateful to those who helped him 30 years ago.

Janaka Malwatta is a poet, doctor and cricket lover who lives in Brisbane. @janakamalwatta

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